Google's announcement last week that it would launch its Street View project in Germany by the end of the year, has prompted Chancellor Angela Merkel's government to take political action. The government says it will present regulations for services on the Internet that involve the collection of geographical data by the fall. Afterwards, the government says it will update the country's Federal Data Protection Law to meet the needs of an increasingly networked world.
German Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner has warned against the cross-linking of geodata. Linking together names, addresses, photos, personal preferences or GPS movement profiles would be "a breach of the dam, and we have to prevent that," she said in an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE.
In the interview, conducted on Wednesday, Aigner also called on Google to extend the deadline for residents of the 20 German cities to be featured in Street View at launch to submit requests to have pictures of their homes blurred to the point of non-recognition. On Thursday, the company said it would extend the deadline by an additional month, following criticism that it announced a one-month deadline for such objections in the middle of the summer holidays.
Although Google's Street View plans have been known for at least two years, Aigner says the timing of the announcement surprised many. Aigner also says that she herself is a Google user -- both at work and at home.
In the interview, Aigner discusses her views on the benefits and dangers of the Web, plans by the German government to regulate the Internet and what she thinks of the image some have of her as an Internet scaremonger.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Ms. Aigner, have you ever googled your name?
Ilse Aigner: Of course. The last time was this morning.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: And what's the latest information?
Aigner: Quite a number of articles about Google and Aigner.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What was the last thing you looked at on Google Street View?
Aigner: For research reasons I took a look at Bern and Zurich to see how residential areas are represented. The faces of most passersby are pixilated, but you can often recognize them nonetheless. And you can look at people in their front yards.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You appear to have been doing that as part of your work. Do you also use Google Street View privately?
Aigner: Before a trip, I often go online. I view street maps and routes, and figure out how I can get from point A to point B. I am less interested in photos of homes and landscapes. It's clear that many consumers use Google, but so do many businesses and associations. In the past, I was active in a voluntary German lifeguard service. Rescue services have a huge advantage in that they can now orient themselves much better with the help of the Internet.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why, then, is criticism the only thing that we hear from you about the Internet giants?
Aigner: Because we have to pay attention to where the line is drawn. We have to determine the point at which a service provider has violated a person's right to privacy.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How does the image of a home infringe a person's right to privacy?
Aigner: There are differences between a public building like my ministry or a residential area, where one can recognize a child's toy in the garden or take a picture through the living-room window. That is why it is important that Google has conceded to all residents the right of objection, and that it will also be available after Street View's launch.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Where would you draw the line?
Aigner: The decisive thing is the question of linking data together. One example: The development departments of IT firms have long had photo software for mobile phones that can be used, within seconds, to connect a person's face on the street with that person's name, an address and the image that goes with it, a birthday, perhaps the person's personal preferences that they have added on social networks or a GPS profile of their movements. With only one click, I would have a complete personality profile of a passerby. That would be a breach of the dam, and we have to prevent that.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: At the same time, you have blocked a so-called "Google Law" that the state of Hamburg proposed. Instead, the federal government is calling for more general rules. Is the government shelving the issue?
Aigner: No, we are choosing a broader approach in which we in the federal government will fundamentally deal with the surveying and use of geodata. In the future we may not only be dealing with camera-equipped cars, but with satellites and drones that map cities and communities. How will we deal with that? To what degree should private companies be allowed to zoom into our day-to-day lives? Will the photos be undeletable and available for all eternity on the Internet, or will there be an expiration date? Or will there even be an "eraser" for the Web? These are important questions. But first we want to deal with general rules for geodata services like, for example, Street View. Later, we will make general changes to Germany's Federal Data Protection Act to adapt it to the Internet age, as we agreed to in our government coalition agreement. One thing is clear: We need to find a reasonable balance between new technological opportunities, which can benefit many consumers, and the protection of the individual's private sphere.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are politicians not deceiving themselves when they imagine they can regulate everything?
Aigner: Not dealing with the issue is no alternative. But I am convinced that in the future we need to coordinate more at the international level. One day, discussions with our partners at the G-8 and the G-20 summits on issues like global Internet security and cross-border data privacy rights will be as self-evident as discussions about climate change are today.
Aigner on Google's Information Deficit and Her Image as an Internet Scaremongerer
SPIEGEL ONLINE: When Google publicly announced last week that it would launch Street View in Germany by the end of the year, politicians seemed to be taken by surprise -- including you. Were you asleep at the wheel?
Aigner: Google took people by surprise by making the announcement during the summer holidays, and it didn't do itself any favors by doing so. As for me: I have been actively addressing this subject for months now, and I have met multiple times with managers at Google for top-level talks. Nevertheless, last week the company informed the federal government with very short notice. And the residents of the 20 cities where Street View is to start in 2010 were only given a four-week deadline for registering their objections in advance. In my view it has to be extended because many people are still on their summer holidays. (Editor's note: After the publication of this interview in German, Google announced it would extend the deadline for residents in Germany to submit requests to have their homes blurred to two months.)
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you still trust Google?
Aigner: To be honest: The fact that my ministry was only able to bring to light the fact that private wireless network data had been illegally intercepted after persistent requests to Google, which took several weeks, did not help to build trust. I have since had several meetings with Google and I am convinced that they now place great value on abiding by the objection procedures. The damage to the image of the brand is already enormous. Google cannot allow itself to make any further mistakes, particularly given that Germany is one of the company's most important markets after the USA.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: A colleague in your political party, CSU domestic affairs expert Stephan Mayer, as well as an FDP politician, are calling for a declaration of consent to be signed by some sections of the population -- senior citizens, for example -- before their homes may be photographed. What's your position on that?
Aigner: That demand is understandable, but it could backfire. Should we seriously be handing over offical data on addresses, sorted by age group, to Internet companies on a silver platter? This is an area where Google itself has obligations. I expect a broad amount of information to be given to the public -- both about how it is dealing with existing objections and about future trips by the Street View cameras. Seeing as Google is unfortunately not doing this sufficiently, I am taking over.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does it annoy you that some on the Web regard you as an Internet scaremongerer?
Aigner: I would remind you that it was SPIEGEL ONLINE that coined that phrase. Anyone who knows me knows that I am far from a technophobe. I can only smile at that ...
SPIEGEL ONLINE: ... because you used to work on the development of helicopters?
Aigner: That's one reason. I am also personally interested in the Internet and new technologies. I have to admit, I find the topic really fun.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But not Facebook, apparently. You publicly cancelled your account, something that the Internet community mocked as a "helpless gesture."
Aigner: Hang on a second! I provoked a wide debate about responsibility and the rules of the game on social networking sites. And the international discussion forced Facebook to at least improve its security settings -- even if that is only the first step. Furthermore: If I, as consumer protection minister, were still on Facebook, then I would be publicly vouching for its harmlessness. That was why I had to leave. Other social networking sites have better security policies and higher protection standards for their members.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is the debate about Google and other companies getting increasingly hysterical?
Aigner: The fact that data protection is perhaps discussed more fundamentally and also more emotionally in Germany than elsewhere, has certainly to do with our history and with the painful memory of two totalitarian regimes. Many people do not wish to appear in the digital fishbowl -- and we have to respect their concerns.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Did registering your own objection work?
Aigner: I already sent a written objection months ago for my private apartment, and I will naturally be checking if it has been implemented.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Have you ever bought something on the Internet?
Aigner: Of course! However, I am very careful about what data I give. If possible, I get an invoice rather than paying online with my credit card. And naturally I also use online banking.
SPIEGEL ONLINE. One retail chain in Germany is now offering a flying drone that can be steered by smartphone for just €300 ($390). Have you already bought one?
Aigner: (laughs) No, what would I do with it? That is nothing new. You could already buy them from specialist stores. They are called quadrocopters and have four rotors.